Inside the News: New Accountability Podcast Focuses on FBI Infiltration in Colorado

  • Corey Hutchins is a journalism instructor at Colorado College and a contributor to Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. This column is produced with support from the Colorado Media Project, and is distributed statewide via the Colorado News Collaborative.

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At the beginning of the first episode of a newly released national podcast called Alphabet Boys, which focuses on Colorado, journalist Trevor Aaronson offers a warning to listeners.

“We are going to expose, using secret undercover recordings, how the Federal Bureau of Investigation infiltrated and undermined the racial justice movement during the summer of 2020,” the host says. “This is not a story the FBI wants told.”

How’s that for a hook?

“Alphabet Boys reveals the secret investigations of the FBI, CIA, DEA, ATF, and other alphabet agencies,” the podcast, produced by Western Sounds and iHeartPodcasts, teases. “These agencies aren’t interested in small cases,” Aaronson says on one episode. In the podcast series, he interrogates whether the people who make up these agencies are catching real criminals … or creating them.

The first episodes, which dropped on Tuesday, focus on Colorado — as does the rest of the 10-episode documentary season. Here’s the teaser:

It’s the summer of 2020. After the brutal killings of unarmed Black Americans by law enforcement, the nation is a tinderbox of anger. The pandemic is raging. Protestors and police are violently going toe-to-toe in cities across America. Denver sees some of the most intense protests. Amid the clashes, a new guy rolls into town. He’s got a cigar dangling from his lips and he’s driving a silver hearse filled with guns.

You might recall that was the summer Denver and Colorado Springs journalists recounted facing pepper balls, tear gas, and spray by police as they covered those protests.

Here’s how Amy Goodman of the national Democracy Now! broadcast described revelations from the podcast on her Tuesday show:

Evidence has emerged that the FBI played a direct role in infiltrating racial justice protests after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. A new podcast, out today, called Alphabet Boys, documents how the FBI paid an informant at least $20,000 to infiltrate and spy on activist groups in Denver, Colorado. The informant also encouraged activists to purchase guns and commit violence.

Locally, Westword reporter Conor McCormick-Cavanagh dedicated this week’s cover story to how the podcast came about. In 2021, he wrote, Aaronson struck gold when “a source turned over a treasure trove of FBI documents and audio and video recordings that showed how the agency had a paid informant at the heart of racial justice protests — in Denver, Colorado.”

From Westword:

That informant, Michael “Mickey” Windecker, had recorded countless hours of conversations with Denver demonstrators and constantly communicated with FBI agents, who were paying him $5,000 every few weeks at one point. All the while, he was pretending to be a radical racial justice revolutionary who wanted to upturn the system by any means necessary, including through violence. And Windecker, who frequently boasted about fighting with Kurdish militias against ISIS in the Middle East, was pushing certain protesters in a more extreme direction, even encouraging potential domestic terrorism actions that the feds could prosecute. …

Placing informants within organizations that are engaging in protected free speech activities has a corrosive effect that can lead to suspicion and the eventual failure of certain movements, Aaronson notes. One of the most egregious examples of the FBI overstepping its bounds — and going after protected First Amendment activities through what’s known as COINTELPRO — was placing informants to spy on Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers in the late 1960s. The FBI also investigated the Black Panthers and the Chicano movement in Denver.

So how was the investigative journalist able to tell this story beyond a major cache of secret audio and video evidence?

“As part of this investigation, I reviewed more than 300 pages of FBI reports and hours of FBI undercover recordings, as well as publicly available videos recorded by Denver demonstrators and by Windecker himself,” Aaronson wrote in a first-person story at The Intercept about his new podcast. “I also examined dozens of court files related to Windecker’s past and interviewed more than three dozen racial justice activists who encountered Windecker during the summer of 2020.”

More from that piece:

Until now, little has been revealed about the FBI’s actions in the summer of 2020. The Denver undercover probe involving Windecker provides the first look behind the scenes at how the FBI viewed and investigated racial justice groups during that turbulent summer.

CBS Colorado also covered some of what the podcast revealed this week.

The local TV story, by Austen Erblat, came with a line you’re likely to keep seeing if others follow up: “A spokesperson for the FBI’s Denver field office declined to comment for this story and referred questions to the FBI’s national office. The FBI’s national press office did not respond to a request for comment.”

Denver isn’t the only Colorado city featured in the inaugural season of Alphabet Boys.

An episode set to broadcast soon focuses on Colorado Springs where a pink-haired local police detective in 2020 infiltrated the city’s leftist community under an assumed name. (At the time, Heidi Beedle reported on this development for the Indy alt-weekly; she also reported on the podcast’s disclosures this week for The Colorado Times Recorder.) Aaronson says on the podcast that the federal infiltration in the Springs originated from Windecker’s work as a snitch in Denver.

I’ve followed Aaronson’s work since I met him more than 15 years ago when he was a reporter for an alt-weekly in Florida holding local law enforcement accountable; he later wrote a book called “The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism.” (Perhaps you’re sensing a theme in his journalism.)

I caught up with him this week to see what else his podcast series has in store, and he told me one episode, which will air around mid-March, focuses on what happened behind the scenes of 2020 Colorado headlines about an alleged plot to assassinate our state’s Democratic attorney general.

“This was another example of the news media reporting unquestioningly on law enforcement’s claims — in this case, about a plot to assassinate Attorney General Phil Weiser,” Aaronson said. “I obtained the FBI undercover recordings related to the supposed plot, and we reveal in episode seven of Alphabet Boys that the plot wasn’t nearly as serious as it was presented to the public.”

Beyond that, the national journalist expressed some frustration with his ability to easily obtain public information in Colorado for his reporting.

“Digging through court records is essential to my reporting, and I’ve spent countless hours in courthouses nationwide,” he told me. “Colorado is a particularly frustrating state for court access.”

Among the hurdles to his reporting in our state was having to pay money in order to run docket searches on the internet where none of the filings can be accessed online.

“At many courthouses, the clerks would not allow me to review the case files,” he said. “I had to use the docket I paid to get online, email the clerk which files I wanted to copy, and then wait for them to be emailed or mailed to me. Only then could I read the filing.”

He also said there was no way to review files before deciding which ones he might want to copy.

“Some of these procedures in Colorado appear to be pandemic-related — to discourage people from coming to the courthouse — but have remained in place to this day,” Aaronson said. “I experienced these problems with both civil and criminal courts in several counties. It doesn’t have to be this way. Notably, the Denver Probate Court makes dockets and filings accessible online for free. There’s no reason the state’s criminal and civil courts can’t do the same.”

Knowing what went into the reporting behind the scenes, listen to the podcast here.

Sentinel gets serious about the business side

Anyone who has been involved in a local news startup in recent years will tell you that good journalism is never enough. If you build it, they will come? (And the money will follow?) Not in local news.

To find success, local news entrepreneurs really can’t sleep on the business side of the operation. To that end, after a splashy ownership transition to a nonprofit, the Aurora-based Sentinel Colorado weekly newspaper has hired some pros to beat the bushes, and, hopefully, help make it rain.

From an announcement this week:

Amid restructuring, Sentinel Colorado has recruited two expert newspaper and media advertising and marketing veterans for the growing team.

Advertising Director Ron Thayer and Senior Advertising Executive Phoebe Grace Rozelle joined Aurora’s premier news media last week.

“We are fortunate to bring on new team members who are not only highly skilled and committed to building businesses in the community, they’re both deeply passionate about the trusted-news mission of the Sentinel,” said Sentinel Publisher and Editor Dave Perry.

Thayer “comes to the Sentinel after a 13-year career in the Navy and as a sales executive and director for a host of newspapers in Washington, Oregon, California and Pennsylvania,” the statement reads. “Rozelle has more than 20 years of experience in statewide business journals, daily newspapers and alternative publications, as well as marketing and advertising agencies in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Colorado.”

Denver TV journalist jumps to FOX News

CB Cotton, who recently said “farewell to Denver7,” announced her next move this week: The Fox News Channel.

From Business Wire:

Since 2020, Ms. Cotton has served as a reporter for ABC affiliate KMGH-TV in Denver, Colorado where she was the station’s lead night side reporter focused on crime, justice, and law enforcement. During her tenure, she covered the city’s breaking news stories, including the Boulder King Soopers supermarket shooting and the December 2021 Marshall fire. She has also reported on alleged police misconduct, such as the violent arrest of Kyle Vinson in Aurora, the controversial apprehension of then 75-year-old Karen Garner in 2020 and the fallout surrounding the death of Elijah McClain following his 2019 arrest.

“In 2020, I was looking for a station to believe in me… and I found it at Denver7,” Cotton said on social media. She added: “To the community members who trusted me with their stories — thank you. Thank you for trusting me with your pain, joy, and deepest concerns.”

Colorado’s 2nd ‘free speech battle’ in a year heads to the U.S. Supreme Court

What’s Colorado known for? Legalizing weed? Ski resorts? Pueblo chile? How about free speech cases going before the U.S. Supreme Court? The state has been a major exporter of those recently. If by major, we mean…

“This is the second first amendment case to be argued in front of the nation’s highest court this year,” wrote Allison Sherry this week at Colorado Public Radio.

A couple months ago, the court heard arguments about whether a web designer from Colorado could say on her website that she would not create sites for same-sex couples “or any other marriage that is not between one man and one woman,” according to CPR.

This latest one out of Colorado involves someone arrested for stalking, what is a “true threat,” and “whether Colorado’s law — which currently allows for imprisoning someone for writing threatening messages that are perceived as frightening or intimidating by a victim — violates the First Amendment,” Sherry reported.

From the story:

In Colorado, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the person delivering the speech intended for it to be threatening, but if law enforcement deems it to be “objectively” threatening plus the victim feels threatened, that is sufficient enough for prosecution in the state’s criminal justice system. 

“It’s everything George Orwell talked about in his novels,” one constitutional lawyer and scholar says in the story.

“To those who say this is going to be terrible for political speech, make them show a concrete example, they can’t,” argued the victim’s attorney.

More Colorado media odds & ends

🤑 Join the Colorado College Journalism Institute for a Feb. 15 in-person conversation with Bloomberg News Senior Reporter Heather Perlberg about reporting on the world’s richest and most powerful institutions. “We’ll learn how private equity firms, hedge funds, and banks have invaded every corner of our lives — in Colorado and across the nation — sometimes showing up in places we’d least expect to gobble up homes, doctors’ practices, and even local newspapers.”

☀️ The Colorado Sun is “committed to the work of fighting racism, bigotry and exclusion, and to promoting a more just and equitable world,” a statement on the news site reads. “This statement codifies that commitment and provides actionable goals to hold us accountable.”

🔎 When Marshall Zelinger of 9News “set out to do a story explaining what every line item means on an Xcel bill,” the “WHAT you’re paying for story turned out to be just the start.” He described the resulting story as “journalism guided by and for our viewers/readers.”

🆕 Sarah B. Warrender has left a role at The New York Times and is “moving back to local journalism in a design role with the Colorado Springs Gazette.”

📺 The Denver Post’s Patrick Saunders profiled CBS4’s Romi Bean as the first lead female sports anchor in Denver. “I was a cheerleader — literally a cheerleader, on the field — for the team,” she says in the piece. “Then I was on the radio trying to give critical takes and then critical TV takes. It was doubly tough because I felt like I had to prove that I wasn’t a homer of all of these teams.”

📱 CBS Colorado reported “how two Colorado social media influencers are making a living and changing the game.”

🦷 Classic line here from reporting on the Colorado election-denier front: “Oltmann declined to answer additional questions but did offer that he was preparing to sue the Colorado Times Recorder. He also characterized this reporter as an ‘anti-American Antifa communist piece of shit,’ and said …‘I welcome the day where it does actually clack off and I get to literally kick your teeth in’.”

🏆 Colorado’s Josiah Hesse won “Cannabis Journalist of the Year” from the Cannadelic Conference in Miami. His book “Runner’s High: How a movement of cannabis-fueled athletes is changing the science of sports” came out in 2021.

📸 The Colorado Springs Police Department “plans to release body camera footage of any ‘significant event’ such as an officer-involved shooting or death in custody, within 21 days of the incident,” The Gazette reported.

🗣 Colorado Community Media Publisher Linda Shapley will speak “to the Adams County League of Women Voters on ‘The Role of Community News in our Democracy’ from 6:30-8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 13.”

📚 An investigation by the Colorado Civil Rights Division “concluded that a Weld County library district violated state anti-discrimination laws when it fired a librarian in 2021 after she objected to the cancelation of programs she had planned for youth of color and LGBTQ teens,” Elizabeth Hernandez reported in The Denver Post.

👀 Democratic Gov. Jared Polis saluted outgoing Denver Business Journal reporter Ed Sealover with a cake “and a rendition of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,’ joined by the members of the press corps, and the House and Senate also paid tribute to his service to his readers and journalism,” Marianne Goodland reported for Colorado Politics.

🎥 “Legislation or a new judicial branch policy could make livestreaming of court proceedings more commonplace in Colorado,” the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition reported.

💻 Jon Mitchell, the lead editor, content manager, and page designer at The Gazette in Colorado Springs, said “We’re nearing two years since the launch of the interactive e-edition” of the paper, which he called “a great thing we offer.”

⚰️ Tom McAvoy, a “longtime Pueblo Chieftain journalist, who distinguished himself among readers and politicians on both sides of the aisle whom he met during his time on the state politics beat, has died,” The Chieftain reported. He was 76.

I’m Corey Hutchins, co-director of Colorado College’s Journalism Institute. For nearly a decade I’ve reported on the U.S. local media scene for Columbia Journalism Review, and I’ve been a journalist for longer at multiple news organizations. The Colorado Media Project is underwriting this newsletter, and my “Inside the News” column appears at COLab, both of which I sometimes write about here. Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.